By Senators Bob Corker, Jon Kyl and Kelly Ayotte
President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2013 budget request to modernize our nation's aging nuclear weapons and laboratories falls about $370 million short of what the Senate deemed necessary when it supported the 2010 New START treaty.
In explaining this, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Thomas D'Agostino, told Congress, "the reality I have to deal with is the appropriation I received from Congress last December, which reduced our budget by over $400 million."
This perceived lack of congression-al support led the administration to delay, from two years to seven years, refurbishing our aging nuclear weapons and building a critical plutonium handling facility.
But Congress can alter this "reality." It can restore the commitment to nuclear modernization basic to New START and avoid some of the schedule delays that the military regards as risky.
Indeed, restored funding could be achieved with a combination of administrative reforms across the nuclear weapons complex, execution of the $125 million transfer authority granted to the defense secretary in the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act and a measured increase in the FY2013 appropriation for the national nuclear administration from lesser priorities.
During recent hearings, several important conclusions became obvious.
First, the plan to modernize our aging nuclear weapons and facilities, proposed by the president in consultation with Congress, remains valid. As the head of NNSA told the House Armed Services Committee, "the country needs [ ] to have those capabilities."
Second, adjustments to the plan proposed for FY2013 and beyond were hastily conceived -- and it remains unclear whether the alternative strategy can even be executed. As Gen. C. Robert Kehler, head of Strategic Command, recently testified, "My biggest concern is what happens beyond '13. [ ] Right now, we do not have a comprehensive plan in place for post fiscal year 2013. [ ] I am worried about this; [ ] I just don't see the planning."
The military risk from these schedule delays may not be manageable for long. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is concerned about the funding cuts that Congress has contemplated. "It would be tremendously shortsighted," Panetta said last year, "if they reduce funds that are absolutely essential for modernization. If we aren't staying ahead of it, we jeopardize the security of this country."
Kehler echoed Panetta's worries. "I am concerned," Kehler said, "about our ability to provide for the deployed stockpile and that is my No. 1 concern."
Last year's appropriations cut was influenced by the Budget Control Act because it was enacted after the president's budget request. But the BCA did not necessitate reductions to the FY2013 request for nuclear weapons activities. The administration's decision was presumably based on the assumption that Congress was wavering from its original commitment to nuclear modernization. On the contrary, we believe congressional support for nuclear modernization remains strong.
In 2011, the House and Senate Armed Services committees fully funded the budget request. This year, the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee is also recommending full funding.
With the HEWD subcommittee mark as a baseline, other committees have an opportunity to increase funding with money from lower priorities. The House Strategic Forces Subcommittee says up to $250 million can be found by streamlining federal management and eliminating duplicative oversight by the Department of Energy. Similarly, the national lab directors offered specific ideas for cost savings in their testimony before the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee last week.
The Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee had supported the president's original 10-year modernization plan. It requested an additional budget allocation last year for this purpose. While BCA exigencies may have precluded this previously, there is an opportunity now to fund to the original level prescribed for FY 2013 through a combination of savings derived from administrative reform, using the $125 million transfer authority that the Defense Department has not yet executed and providing the balance from lesser priorities within the security account.
Congress has an opportunity to restore the funding and schedule for the nuclear modernization plan. It is important that we do so -- not only to maintain a strong nuclear deterrent but also, as the chairman of the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee said last week, "to safely reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons. We must, at a minimum, ensure our infrastructure can maintain these fewer numbers of weapons so they are safe, secure and military effective."
Sen. Jon Kyl (R- Ariz.) served on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. He also serves on the Finance and Judiciary committees. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) serves on the Foreign Relations Committee and the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) serves on the Armed Services Committee and the Budget Committee.